John Schuyler: Beatnik Party; Bedside Books; 1959; paperback, 175 pages, fiction — “The truth about the wild orgies of San Francisco’s beat generation!”; “Crazed with Strange Desires…Shameful Affairs!”; classic beatploitation.
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves.”
Peter Schjeldahl writes: So starts “Naked Lunch,” the touchstone novel by William S. Burroughs. That hardboiled riff, spoken by a junkie on the run, introduces a mélange of “episodes, misfortunes, and adventures,” which, the author said, have “no real plot, no beginning, no end.” It is worth recalling on the occasion of “Call Me Burroughs” (Twelve), a biography by Barry Miles, an English author of books on popular culture, including several on the Beats. “I can feel the heat” sounded a new, jolting note in American letters, like Allen Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” or, for that matter, like T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month.” (Ginsberg was a close friend; Eliot hailed from Burroughs’s home town of St. Louis and his poetry influenced Burroughs’s style.) In Burroughs’s case, that note was the voice of an outlaw revelling in wickedness. It bragged of occult power: “I can feel,” rather than “I feel.” He always wrote in tones of spooky authority—a comic effect, given that most of his characters are, in addition to being gaudily depraved, more or less conspicuously insane.
“Naked Lunch” is less a novel than a grab bag of friskily obscene comedy routines—least forgettably, an operating-room Grand Guignol conducted by an insouciant quack, Dr. Benway. “Well, it’s all in a day’s work,” Benway says, with a sigh, after a patient fails to survive heart massage with a toilet plunger. Some early reviewers spluttered in horror. Charles Poore, in the Times, calmed down just enough to be forthright in his closing line: “I advise avoiding the book.” “Naked Lunch” was five years in the writing and editing, mostly in Tangier, and aided by friends, including Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as “The Naked Lunch” (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with “Lolita,” “The Ginger Man,” and “Sexus.” Its plain green-and-black cover, like the covers of those books, bore the alluring caveat “Not to be sold in U.S.A. or U.K.” (A first edition can be yours, from one online bookseller, for twenty thousand dollars.) The same year, Big Table, a Chicago literary magazine, printed an excerpt, and was barred from the mails by the U.S. Postal Service. Fears of suppression delayed a stateside publication of the book until 1962, when Grove Press brought out an expanded and revised edition. It sold so well that Grove didn’t issue a paperback until 1966.
Master of many trades
Our age reveres the narrow specialist but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things
Robert Twigger writes: I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.
We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?